Archive for February, 2008

Read ‘Em and Write

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I always disliked book reviews when I was at school. To me, deconstruction and analysis of a book, especially by self-centered adolescents, ruined the magic. If you dissect a bird to see how it’s made, it never flies again. Almost every book I was assigned to read and report on in school were thus ruined for me forever, save two, which I can still read with the same awed enjoyment: The Catcher In the Rye and In Cold Blood.

So it’s a little ironic that I have actually volunteered to write book reviews. I’ll put it down to bowing graciously to popular demand, but I’m not going to compare and contrast anything ever again. Just so you know.

Let’s get this party started.

Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, by Aoibheann (how on earth do you pronounce that one?) Sweeney

Given my fondness for “Catcher”, it may not be surprising that I enjoyed this postmodern coming of age novel, the first by its unpronounceable author. I could say it’s the story of a girl who grows up on an isolated island in Maine with her isolated intellectual father, her mother having died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. I could say it’s the story of this same girl approaching life in New York with na?vet? and charm. It is those things, but it’s also the girl’s discovery of herself and her father. The writing is lyrical, and I found myself turning back to re-read certain passages to experience their singular beauty all over again.

740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building, by Michael Gross

It’s as if the author knew about my love of gossip, especially high society gossip, and my love of fantasy real estate (as pictured in the New York Times) and wrote this book just for me. I revelled in the descriptions of the impossibly luxurious apartments inhabited by Rockefellers and Bouviers and the baroque lives they lived. A delightful break from the reality of living in Oakland, though some of the 740 Park denizens also had trouble paying their bills.

Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, edited by Ellen Sussman

I found this one a little uneven, to say the least, but what else would you expect from a collection of essays that includes a meditation on the penis? Not to mention Erica Jong’s self-indulgent rant which unfortunately concludes the book. Joyce Maynard’s explanation of why she broke her silence about her youthful affair with JD Salinger was fascinating (I hope she’d be pleased that I sympathize with her despite loving his work) and I was delighted by Ann Hood’s account of making up a cool life to impress a makeover artist, but on the whole, not as fun as you’d think. You’d be better off getting together with your girlfriends, having a few cocktails, and swapping stories. Being bad might be one of the activities that are better to do than to read about.

The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold

I have to agree with most of the critics who call it a disappointing follow-up to 2002’s best selling “The Lovely Bones”. The magic of the writing in “Bones” is missing in action in this tale of a woman who smothers the elderly mother who has destroyed, literally and figuratively, the lives of those around her. The characters and events are unsympathetic and unbelievable, and it’s hard to believe that the two books were written by the same person. Maybe some people really only have one book in them, and maybe we should be grateful that Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell stopped when they did.

Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, by Ed Sikov

A breezy recounting of the star’s life by a true fan who keeps it light and witty. I could have done without his constant drooling over Errol Flynn and knowing that Davis was difficult for costume designers to dress due to her refusal to wear underwire bras despite being in extremely desperate need of same (think National Geographic), though. If I have to suffer, you do, too.

Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote

Someone once said “Anyone who says ‘I love Truman Capote’ has never actually met him”, and that may be true. Geniuses and artists are notoriously difficult to live with. But I do love his writing, so it was a treat for me to read all his short pieces all in one place. I just dove right in and didn’t come up for days. If you have never read Capote, this is a great introduction to his art. And if you have…oh, honey, don’t let me commence!

The Sweet Birds of Gorham, by Ann Birstein

Really, Tru? I can’t believe that this slight, unsurprisingly out of print effort was Capote’s favorite book (though I can believe he’d say so as a joke). Supposedly a satire on the world of academe, in which a girl moves to a small town college from the big city and supposedly makes a stir. I remained unmoved. The best thing about it was the cute cover.

Up next:

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas

I hope luxury hasn’t really lost its luster. There’d be nothing left to live for.

Diamonds on the Toes of Her Shoes

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Real life being so very unfabulous these days (stormy weather; three arrests accessorized by car towings on my block-and-a-half-long street in one week; a stinging case of mystery hives; the living room still garnished with unpacked boxes; my collapsing bed; and is that a bullet hole in the glass on my back porch?), I took refuge in the fantasy world of the New York Times Style Magazine. I can now tell you important things like:

  • Orange is the new lip color for spring;
  • I somehow managed to overlook the Osmoth?que perfume museum in Paris on my many visits;
  • The perfect gift for the truly bitter: wedding ring coffins;
  • Disco may not be back, but “disco waves” are (think Marisa Berenson); and
  • I still can’t afford an estate in the Hamptons or a townhouse in the Village.

Besides the lack of escape from the horror of reality TV, the worst thing about the writers’ strike was the lack of glitz and glamor on the red carpet, the only good part of any awards show. It’s been months since there have been gowns and gems to admire. Withdrawal was setting in, so the Oscars are arriving not a moment too soon. I’m particularly looking forward to the million dollar Retro Rose shoes to be worn by Diablo Cody*, the writer of Juno. Who needs a glass slipper when you can have diamond slippers? And as Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee would say, “I just love finding new places to wear diamonds!”

I’d settle for these until I marry a millionaire or write an Oscar-nominated screenplay.

*If you think that name sounds like a stripper, you’re right: she was. You can read all about it in her memoir Candy Girl. Needless to say, I have it on order at the library.


Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Last night’s lunar eclipse was eclipsed by clouds here and sadness at my sister’s house. After a battle with acute leukemia, her beloved 14 year old dog Bear was laid to rest in the red moonlight, beside our adored Jed. They are together under a big tree in a sunny meadow where the wild irises grow. And my sister’s little house seems so empty now.


Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Snow flurries on the east coast seem to cause work flurries on the west coast, as businessmen flee the snows of New York for the sun of California.

I’ve had something of a blizzard this week, with early morning conference calls to the snowbound (and I do mean early; 5:30 yesterday and 5:00 tomorrow*); a visit to a money manager in a nearby city (where I was surprised to meet and chat with the CEO); and a day of meetings at our San Francisco office. I still find it weird to be clacking around the Financial District in heels, even though I did it for so many years in my former life.

I’m still getting used to the commute time from Oakland. It always takes longer than the schedules state, and I hate being late. On the other hand, I don’t have to feel guilty about driving, or find a parking space, so I guess it’s a trade-off. On my way home today, I took the bus from the BART station and felt like an overdressed freak. Two girls were conducting a loud, profanity-laced conversation about a mutual acquaintance who is a “gift ho”, a new one on me. The driver turned around and said very sternly, “Ladies, no cursing on my bus,” and a hush fell over the bus.

So, what with all the homicides this weekend, and the woman getting arrested across the street with three cop cars in attendance (and having her car towed), it seemed like a good idea to take a break from urban life.

I meant to leave today, but the meetings dragged on, so after my conference call 11 hours from now, I’ll head up to visit my brother and sister in beautiful Mendocino County for a few days. I’m expecting fewer murders and more wine.

*I used to start work at 6:00 am for years, along with the New York Stock Exchange. I haven’t done that for a few years, and now it seems inconceivable to me that I ever did. And that word does mean what I think it means.

The Franz Kafka Utility Company

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

Mail these days is rarely, if ever, fun. Since most of us use the instant gratification of email instead of the delayed gratification of the USPS, mailboxes now rarely contain love letters or cards or just plain letters. Sometimes you get a birthday card, and sometimes a postcard from a friend whose life is far more interesting than yours, but my mail mostly consists of items meant for the former occupants (who apparently don’t know that their friends at the post office would forward their mail if only they had been asked) and bills.

Last week, I got two horrifying bills in two horrifying days. One was for gas and electricity, and they wanted $127 from me. The other was from the Franz Kafka Utility Company, and they wanted $107. Apparently odd numbers are oddly popular among the odd. I was mystified by both bills, since I turn the heat off whenever I leave the house, turn it down to 57 when I go to bed, and rarely keep it above 65 or 66 ever. I also only light the room I’m actually in. I tried those eco lights in the bedroom, but it made it look like a dentist’s office or the dressing room of a cheap and cruel department store, so I had to go back to the warm glow of real light bulbs. I do have the ugly eco lights on the porch and in the laundry room, where atmosphere and appearance are less important, but every time I drive up to the house and porch light is on, I think, God, that light is ugly.

It’s not pretty being green.

Anyway, I was pretty much resigned to the gas & electric bill, but there were so many inexplicable line items on the FKUC bill that I called them and asked them what the FKUC. The person on the phone was very nice, and nearly the first thing she asked me was if this was my first Oakland water bill. She wasn’t surprised to hear it was – apparently my reaction to the bill is pretty much universal. The good news: the $15 new account charge is a one time thing – unless I move elsewhere in beautiful Oakland, in which case I will get to see it and pay it again.

The bad and the surreal news:

  • The “water service charge” isn’t for the water usage. It’s for the meter, long since paid for, that the FKUC uses to read the water usage. The actual water charge is listed under “water flow charge”, and is considerably less expensive than the charge for the long paid off meter. Does this make sense to anyone?
  • The sewage charge was nearly $40, and that’s apparently the least it will ever be. I asked what the most could be, and was glad I was sitting down when she informed me it could go as high as $110. As soon as she said “it can go up and down”, I knew I was in trouble. Has anyone ever known a charge such as this or, say, an adjustable mortgage, to actually go down? Didn’t think so.
  • Since I don’t have a dishwasher or water the lawn (the Almighty, as my father used to say, has been doing an almighty good job of that lately) and turn the water off when I brush my teeth, etc., I couldn’t understand why the bill was so high. Here’s fun news: it isn’t. According to my utility company, I am a good citizen who uses half the water that the average Oakland resident does.

I’d hate to see their bills. But then, I hate to see (and pay) mine, too.

Speaking of paying bills: remember that ticket for not pausing enough at the stop sign? Yeah, well, it was worse than either utility bill: $159 (again with the odd numbers). And they charged me a “convenience fee” for paying it on line. I wonder whose convenience that was?